The Nadir: Racial Divide and the Black Women's Club Movement

By the end of the 1880s, well-known Black suffragists start to fade from mainstream leadership records. Terborg-Penn suggests the possible reasons:

  • White leadership no longer needed support from Black suffragists the way they did in the early years, so they stopped recruiting
  • Black women understood the differences in political priorities between white and African American suffragists, so they saw fewer reasons to associate with white-led suffragist organizations
  • A combination of 1 and 2 triggered by a growing racial divide in the U.S. that prompted separate political directions between the races

What is clear is that Black women suffragists were acquiring increasing levels of political awareness grounded in their intersecting identities  As individuals, we are made up of many overlapping social identities, such as race, gender, class, (dis)ability, sexuality, etc. The study of the way these identities intersect and relate to systems of oppression is known as intersectionality as African Americans and as women.

During this “formative period” in the 1870s and 1880s, they straddled mainstream suffrage activities and Black-led local and national-level organizing. The second would continue to expand into the 1890s.

The woman suffrage movement was gaining national momentum, and with it the leadership sought to recruit white middle-class, native born women at the expense of Black women, immigrant women, and working-class women of all races. As a result, many Black female suffragists were shut out….For this nearly forty year period, the complexity of woman suffrage strategies and ideas can be traced through the various experiences of the African American spokeswomen of the second and third generations of suffragists. They continued to reflect priorities secondary to middle-class white suffragists, who did not face the triple oppression of race, class, and sex discrimination”
Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote: 1850-1920 (56-57)

A National Black Women's Club Movement

By the late 19th century, mainstream women’s organizations had become less welcoming to African Americans. Segregated clubs were both a result of this and an opportunity for Black women to have the independence and leadership they were less likely to possess in mainstream organizations.

Initially, the temperance anti-alcohol cause movement was more of a focus for clubs because alcohol was commonly viewed as a source of political corruption, and of abuse toward women and African Americans as a whole.

With time, the connection between issues like temperance and suffrage became more widely embraced and many clubs organized for the ballot. Their aim was to enfranchise Black women and re-enfranchise Black men whose votes had been stolen after the end of Reconstruction. 

The Women’s Loyal Union was among the first organizations, and by 1895 there were four chapters and 10,000 signatures collected on petitions in support of a women’s suffrage resolution in Congress. Among those involved in the Union were suffragists Ida B. Wells and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and New York City social worker Victoria Earle Matthews.

NAWSA is Formed, But for the Benefit of White Women Only

Meanwhile, the two mainstream women’s suffrage organizations - the NWSA and the AWSA - had recognized that they needed to work together if they wanted to win. The two groups united as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

As terms for their merger they agreed to focus only on suffrage, leaving behind other feminist issues.

Part of that compromise was to “ignore the priorities of Black women, an expedient tactic a way of attaining a goal (suffrage), especially a tactic that is convenient but considered improper or immoral (it often brings up the question: do the ends justify the means?) designed to bring in white southern women who did not relish the idea of encouraging Black women to vote” (Terborg-Penn, 56).

In other words, they wanted more southern white women to join the campaign, but they knew many would not if the NAWSA worked for the rights of Black women.

Black Suffragists Push Back Against Racism

Despite the NAWSA’s racist move, several African American women remained active in the mainstream suffrage organizations while also working locally.

Southerners Mary Church Terrell and Coralie Franklin Cook were members of the NAWSA while maintaining leadership positions in the Black women’s club movement. They were also the first and second ever Black women appointed to the D.C. school board.


Mary Church Terrell
Mary Church Terrell

Southerner Adella Hunt Logan was another member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Often mistaken as white, she would attend meetings passing as such which enabled her to be a spy for the Black suffragists at Tuskegee University where she taught.

In addition to attending NAWSA meetings, Logan was involved with the Tuskegee Women’s Club where she pushed the group to take on suffrage as a concern of the organization.

Records Continue to Erase Black Suffragists

Like in the early years of the movement, it’s unclear exactly how many other Black women were involved because the records likely left people out.

For example, Mary Church Terrell was a speaker at the 1890 NAWSA national convention where, according to the records, she addressed a majority white audience.

However, there was a high volume of active Black women suffragists in D.C. at the time, and the portion of her address that dealt with race was not recorded even though other parts of her speech were. But it was picked up by a local newspaper:

“The elective franchise is withheld from one half of its citizens...because the word ‘people’...has been turned and twisted to mean all who were shrewd and wise enough to have themselves been born boys instead of girls, or who took the trouble to be born white instead of black” (Terborg-Penn, 66)

The fact that the mainstream records left out the part of Terrell’s speech that dealt with race strongly suggests that white suffragist leaders were not on board with a broader movement that would have addressed sexism and racism.